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SocietyFebruary 17, 2024

Reviewing Wellington’s newest heritage landmark: a rusty oil tank


Nothing says ‘Wellington Heritage’ like a decaying monument to an outdated industry.

Wellington’s independent hearing panel this week recommended a former British Imperial Oil storage tank in Miramar should receive heritage protection in the District Plan. Wellington city council’s heritage evaluators found the tank had value as “an increasingly rare representative example of bulk storage tanks erected nationally in the 1920s”.

The tank is on land owned by Sir Peter Jackson and Dame Fran Walsh, and they are not happy about the heritage listing. They bought the land to build film infrastructure, and rusty oil tanks are not very useful in the movie business. Two of their companies, Wētā FX and Wingnut Films, made submissions asking the panel to reject heritage protections. 

“The roof has a large number of leaks and significant amounts of water come into the building whenever it rains,” Wingnut chief executive Clare Olssen said. “Sadly, the tank is far from the aesthetically pleasing landmark that the Historic Heritage Evaluation would suggest.”

Mike McNeil, Wētā FX chief operating officer, said the heritage listing would “adversely affect Wētā FX, and particularly the ability of Wētā to add crew in the Wellington area.” 

The company wanted to build facilities for 150 new crew members, and the gas tank site was the only suitable location he had found. “Providing the heritage listing would make the situation significantly more difficult, including making our ability to increase employment in Miramar more problematic,” he said. 

Moira Smith, for Wellington city council’s historic heritage team, told the panel there were “a range of examples, where in situations like this, adaptive reuse has been successful”. For example the tank was converted into a cafe in the 1990s, a renovation so expensive that it bankrupted the initial contractor.

The independent hearings panel decided the rusting oil tank was worthy of heritage status. In its report, it agreed with the council’s heritage team that “the building meets the criteria for inclusion in the [heritage] schedule…  We agree with their assessment and reasoning.”

A review of Wellington’s great new heritage icon 

Based on that ringing endorsement, I had to see the historic gas tank for myself. Maybe that’s a unique opinion, as Clare Olssen noted in her submission that “the site has not been visited by those who completed the historical heritage evaluation, and we strongly suggest this occurs.” 

I found Wellington’s newest monument to be a striking and perfect metaphor for the city itself, truly not to be missed.

The behemoth is located at 139 Park Road, Miramar. Not that you needed me to remind you, because I’m sure it’s the first place you take visitors from out of town.  

A view of the heritage oil tank from Google Maps

When we pulled into the parking lot, the first words out of my partner’s mouth were “wow, that is fucking ugly”. It only got worse from there. The main, circular bit looks a bit like a Mad Max Thunderdome arena, one in which you could imagine two manic visual effects artists fighting to the death over a graphics card. It’s exactly the decaying, decrepit vibe that you’d want for a major film studio. 

Around the back you’ll find what’s left of the garden centre that once took root here, and I’ll honestly say that this is the coolest part of the entire thing. It’s a bit like a run down Jurassic Park, and there are some very vibey overgrown plants. This part is also only 30 years old, which I suppose is “heritage” by New Zealand standards. The tank itself is in remarkably pristine condition; it’s only mostly covered in rust and decay, and only leaks when it rains. 

I asked the one Wētā employee I know what he thought of the massive oil drum on his campus, to which he said “huh?” I guess he didn’t see the beauty the council’s heritage team saw. Once he figured out what I was talking about, he said, “I had no idea that was an oil drum”. When told of its new heritage status, he asked “heritage of what? That’s so dumb.”

What better metaphor could we ask for? In a rusting, leaky city that actively denies any semblance of urban renewal, we finally have a monument to those noble efforts. A massive oil drum, a testament to a bygone era, standing defiantly in the middle of a high tech business campus, actively disrupting the growth of a modern industry, quietly coming apart at the seams, frequented only by furtive durry-smoking teens. Truly, a testament to the spirit of Wellington. 

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